It Takes Two

Bryan Adams

The countdown for the Sochi 2014 Winter Olympics is on! As of today (March 8,2013), there are officially 336 days to go. We flashback to our Olympic cover story (March 2010) with Edmonton’s A-List athletic couple, Karen Percy and Kevin Lowe.

As Vancouver 2010 kicks off, Peter Muggeridge meets with 1988 Ski Medalist Karen Percy and hockey great Kevin Lowe and finds out how Edmonton’s A-List couple mix athletics and family into a winning game plan.

It’s early October in Edmonton, and the previous day’s brilliant sunshine has given way jarringly to grey skies and a bitter wind. And while it’s not quite winter yet, the weather foreshadows what lies ahead for the good people of northern Alberta — hockey season.

It’s the time of year Kevin Lowe lives for — always has, ever since he was a youngster growing up in Quebec. Now 50, the former star player with the Edmonton Oilers serves as club president. “My job is fun, enjoyable and exciting,” he says, eliciting envious glances from those within earshot.

We’re sitting in the stands at Rexall Place, watching the Oilers fire pucks in the morning skate in preparation for their season opener against long-time rivals, the Calgary Flames. Answering questions about the team’s prospects, with an eye always on the ice, Lowe exudes the calm confidence of a man who’s reached a good place in life: “We’re going to have a good year.”

With six Stanley Cups and six All-Star appearances, Kevin knows good years. Perhaps his best was 1988, the year he won the Stanley Cup and the hand of ski racer Karen Percy. Karen, you may recall, had a pretty darn good 1988 as well. Then a virtual unknown, she skied the race of her life, capturing Canada’s first medal at the 1988 Winter Olympics in Calgary. Edmonton-born, Banff-raised, she would win another medal in the same Olympics, go on to enjoy a very successful World Cup career and earn a permanent place in the hearts of all Edmontonians. She topped off that year by being named to the Order of Canada.

Nowadays though, for Karen, it’s mostly about family. The 43-year-old blond athletic-looking mother of four is trying to keep things running in her exceedingly busy household. Keegan, their lanky 16-year-old son, is wolfing down his pre-game meal as he prepares for his Western Hockey League game that evening. Devyn, who just turned 18, is texting friends, organizing a get-together to celebrate her birthday. And the two younger girls, Darby and Karly, just back from school, are catching Mom up on the day’s events.

To add to this cheerful frenzy, there’s been a guacamole accident. Karen, making a dip for Devyn’s party, has had a mixer mishap, leaving green
goo scattered everywhere. As the dog laps up the spillage on the floor, Karen laughs good-naturedly.

For Kevin and Karen, this is more or less what they signed up for 22 years ago when they first met at a Wayne Gretzky charity softball event in Brantford, Ont. Engaged after three weeks, they started out on a compelling journey, combining top-level sports and hours of community involvement with the ever-present demands of family life.

Athletics and family have always been the central focus of their lives. Kevin, the youngest of four, grew up in a sports-mad clan from Lachute, Que. His father died when Kevin was 14, and the young teen considered quitting hockey to help his mother, Jessie, run the family’s dairy operation. “Kevin felt hockey came second to helping the family,” recalls Nancy Lowe, Kevin’s older sister who now resides with Jessie in nearby Edmonton. “But Ken [Kevin’s older brother, now the Oilers’ head medical trainer] convinced him that Dad would have wanted him to continue playing.”

Like Kevin, Karen also grew up with three siblings, in a close-knit unit imbued with sport. “We skied as a family since I was five. My parents had a trailer in Canmore [Alta.], and we’d try to get away every weekend.” These family outings got serious when Karen’s family moved to Banff. “I joined the race team. Because, in Banff, that’s what you do.”

Perhaps but, in Quebec, you play hockey and that’s what Kevin did — well enough that, at 17, he left home to play for the Quebec Remparts of the Quebec Major Junior Hockey League. “He packed two pairs of jeans and a couple of T-shirts,” recalls Jessie, Kevin’s engaging 82-year-old hockey mom emeritus. “I got a call from him two weeks later: ‘Mom, I think I’m going to need some more clothes.’ ” By then, it was obvious that a pro career was beckoning.

While playing for the Remparts in 1977, the talented young defenceman caught the eye of Glen Sather, now the president of the New York Rangers, then coach and general manager for the Edmonton Oilers, a fledgling NHL outfit trying to compete against established clubs.

“Kevin showed all the competitiveness, skill and desire that came to define his pro career,” Sather says. Sufficiently impressed, in 1978 Sather made the 20-year-old the team’s first-ever draft selection. The rest is history. He not only scored the Oilers first goal but became an integral part of the high-flying Oiler teams of the ’80s, led by superstars Wayne Gretzky, Mark Messier, Paul Coffey, Glenn Anderson and Jarri Kurri.

“He was definitely one of the best teammates I ever played with,” says Messier, who skated with Kevin on all the Edmonton (and later New York) Cup-winning teams and remains a close friend. “The bigger the game, the better and the harder he played.”

Like Kevin, Karen was also a fiercely competitive athlete, recalls Nick Wilson, who coached her for both the Olympic and Canadian Ski teams. “Karen had the physical talent, obviously, but it was her mental toughness that made her stand out,” he says. “She could take the grind of travel and the physical toll of the competing, but she never let up and never let it get to her.”

Both Lowes played through severe injuries on their way to the top, an ability that often sets top-level athletes apart from the rest. “I’ve broken pretty well every bone in my body,” notes Kevin, almost nonchalantly, “Ribs, ankle, fingers, separated shoulders, wrist, concussions — it comes with the territory.”

And Karen’s all-out style on the hills meant she was no stranger to pain either. “In my first year on the World Cup circuit, I put
everything out on the edge” and had spectacular crashes as a result. “But if I hadn’t fallen so many times, I wouldn’t have gotten to the point I reached,” Karen says.

Surprisingly, neither Kevin nor Karen suffers from the post-career ailments that one would expect of athletes who compete in such extreme sports. In fact, thanks to a healthy diet and regular jogging and workout sessions, the pair could act as poster children for positive aging.

People who excel in their professions often get stuck in their own little universes, obsessed with mastering their craft. Not the Lowes. “Kevin always did a lot of work with charities. While most guys concentrated on playing hockey, he was branching out,” recalls Messier. Sather concurs. “He wasn’t a guy who spent his nights at the bar. Helping run the family’s dairy business as a youngster had made him a shrewd business guy, and he was always on the lookout for opportunities.”

Sather, indeed, played a key role in launching Kevin’s second career. He brought Kevin back from New York to end his playing career with the Oilers and began the process of mentoring him for management, a path that started at assistant coach, then coach, then general manager and now president.

When Karen’s skiing days were nearing the finish line, she decided to put her career aspirations on hold to concentrate on raising their growing brood. But she always knew that once the children were old enough, she’d find her niche. The opportunity arose when CTV, the Vancouver 2010 Olympic broadcaster, asked her to act as commentator for the women’s alpine events. “We’re thrilled to have her as part of the team,” says Gord Cutler, executive producer of Canada’s Olympic Broadcast Media Consortium. “She’s passionate about the sport.” Karen admits to being a bit nervous about her Olympic on-air efforts but, ever the competitor, she embraces the challenge. “The more pressure I have on me as a person, the
better I am.”

The Olympic spirit burns brightly in both. As well as broadcasting, Karen was looking forward to carrying the Olympic torch through Banff, when it arrived on its Vancouver-bound tour this January. And Kevin, a member of Team Canada’s management, is helping assemble the hockey team for this Olympics. He describes being part of the 2002 Salt Lake City Gold Medal team as “magical” and feels a Team Canada victory on home turf might even top that experience.

Obviously, as highly successful athletes, they could have chosen to spend the rest of their lives dining out on their achievements. But both Lowes are endearingly down to earth, never letting success get to their heads.

Kevin downplays the team’s iconic status in Edmonton in the ’80s. “We won a lot and had a great deal of fun,” but he considers his playing days as simply “a job.” Karen, too, refuses to embellish her own magical Olympic races that launched her to the national stage at such a young age: “I got a call from the prime minister, and the mayor threw a party for me. It was pretty cool and a little bit surreal. But really, it was over quickly, and then I was off to the next event.”

Still, because of their high profile in Edmonton, they’re asked by numerous charities to donate their time. And the Lowes accept whenever they can. “They take on so many volunteer commitments,” says Nancy, who helps the couple organize their charitable work, which includes the Zebra Child Protection Centre, Compassion House Foundation (out-of-town breast cancer patients), the Edmonton Oilers Community Foundation and a golf tournament for the Stollery Children’s Hospital Foundation.

The Lowes are also trustees of Waterkeepers, an organization that tries to stop individuals and businesses from polluting our water systems. Karen, president of the Saskatchewan River Waterkeepers, has taken the lead. “It hits home in our own backyard,” she says. “In some parts of the river, I don’t even want to get in the water. There are ways to rectify how we treat our water that will keep it clean for future generations.”

Amid all their commitments, family is never forgotten. “With the Lowes, it all starts and ends with family,” says Sather. “Always has, always will.” Kevin’s co-workers agree. “They’re a tight-knit family,” echoes Oilers assistant GM Rick Olczyk. “And they bring that atmosphere to the team.” Team owner Daryl Katz is equally effusive: “The Lowes? They’re golden. I love them.”

While the long road trips of the hockey season don’t exactly allow for quality family time, the Lowes somehow manage to make sure the kids aren’t lost in the shuffle. Kevin has always been mindful of spending as much time with the family as possible. “Doing stuff with the kids is our favourite hobby. We get our snippets of time here and there,” he says, grateful that Karen — and now his mother — have always been around to help with the load.

“The summers I devote to family,” says Kevin. Each year, at the end of hockey season, the family escapes to their compound on Lake Shuswap, B.C, near the Alberta border. They spend the summer swimming and waterskiing, escaping the hectic pressures that come with their busy lifestyles.

But tonight he’s back at Rexall Place, preparing the Oilers to face off against the Flames. As game time nears, the Oilers faithful make their way from the beer concessions to their seats; the extended Lowe clan gradually arrives. Jessie and Nancy are first, followed by assorted family and friends. Just before the puck drops, in breezes the stylishly dressed Karen with the four kids.

The family cheers when the Oilers score to take an early lead and groan in unison when the team commits a gaffe that leads to a late Calgary goal and the first loss of the fresh season. But, as the arena empties, the Lowes take the defeat in stride, well-conditioned to the ups and downs of athletic pursuits. The victories will come. For Kevin and Karen — whether it’s on snow or ice or in real life — they always have.